In the academy, PowerPoint originated with the natural sciences. Then it spread to those social sciences such as psychology and economics that deal with large amounts of data or rely on complex mathematical modeling. It is neither my intention nor my inclination to judge its appropriateness for such fields, although it is worth mentioning that the renegade political scientist Edward Tufte finds them highly problematic even for the sciences. Tufte shows how reliance on PowerPoint, especially its condensation of information into categories ranked in importance, as well as its proclivity to reduce information to fit conveniently onto a slide, led scientists at NASA to misjudge the danger faced by the damaged space shuttle on its return to earth.
A reliance on PowerPoint in the humanities and soft social sciences is another matter. From the way graduate students are taught to the way they themselves eventually teach, PowerPoint has become the essential means of academic communication, and a much less vibrant academic culture is the inevitable result.
Among the major purposes of the nine-year graduate-school experience these days — nine years being the average in the humanities — is to prepare the student to give a seamless PowerPoint presentation at a job talk. Everything else, including courses, comprehensive exams, and even the writing of a dissertation, which no one outside the thesis committee will ever read, is window-dressing.
In graduate school, numerous hours are devoted to job-talk practice sessions, including rigorous questions about method that a young academic will face when she goes out on the “market.” To meet those challenges, students develop an outline that can be shown on one slide in summary form, nearly always with categories such as (1) the problem; (2) why existing research fails to grapple with it; (3) my approach and innovative methodology; (4) my results; and (5) implications for future research or, if in the social sciences, policy. Careful attention will be paid to the third and fourth points; it is imperative to speak carefully about method because the interviewees, having themselves gone through this process in the recent past, are more comfortable there than they are with actual findings. Practiced well, the whole thing takes about 50 minutes, just enough to appear comprehensive without completely boring the audience, although the latter is always a risk. Generally during a PowerPoint presentation the lights are dim, as if to remind everyone how far we have come from the great thinkers of the Enlightenment.
In the humanities and social sciences, PowerPoint comes equipped with an epistemology, or theory of knowledge. Facts are not arranged with the help of PowerPoint; instead PowerPoint arranges the appropriate facts. PowerPoint is quintessentially question-answering rather than question-asking. It tells us that we can map the world and then enables us to fill in that map. It gives us the confidence, nearly always illusory, that we are making progress. It leaves the impression that every problem is similar to every other problem. We rely on PowerPoint to assure us that, when all is said and done, order rather than chaos rules the world. In the sciences, PowerPoint is used to describe order. In the social sciences and humanities, it is used to impose it. Meant as an aid, PowerPoint becomes the purpose.
As problematic as it may be for spontaneity, however, there is much that is reassuring about the sameness PowerPoint induces. Job talks are meant to remind everyone, no doubt including the presenters themselves, that they will act in acceptable ways if hired. PowerPoint does more than outline a research project; it provides an outline to the lives job candidates hope to lead. Just like their methodology, they will do everything in the right order, first obtaining publication in prestigious journals, then moving on to a new, but related, field, and finally proving the department’s wisdom by obtaining tenure, where they can begin the process all over again with a new generation of graduate students. “Humanists,” writes Leonard Cassuto, an English professor at Fordham University, “worship great artists who break molds. But even as they value such iconoclasm in their articles and classrooms, humanists maintain highly restrictive molds for themselves.” PowerPoint enables them to do so.
It is not long before PowerPoint filters down to the undergraduates. It has, of course, always been there: Even before Microsoft, teachers in the arts would use slides to show great works of art in order to illustrate their fine points. But there is a major difference between PowerPoint as illustration and PowerPoint as pedagogy.
When I was in college, I objected to multiple-choice tests. But at least they were used for evaluation and not teaching. Teaching from PowerPoint leaves me aghast. One might as well go to presentations led by branch managers about last month’s sales campaign. The same impulse that wanted me to forbid students from taking notes in class — it would have been better if they had just listened — wanted me to forbid any oral presentations requiring an outline.
Convinced that my undergraduate students lacked experience with oral presentation, I would ask them to make a short oral report, usually five to 10 minutes, on a topic of interest to them. Without PowerPoint, they barely knew where to start. It is as if the PowerPoint presentations made by successful graduate students had passed undigested directly through me to them. I can see them in their first jobs developing presentations that simply cannot be delivered without the use of a laptop.
If PowerPoint for graduate students cripples the imagination, PowerPoint for undergraduates paralyzes the mind.
Undergraduates unable to live without PowerPoint lose the capacity to develop rich and enriching narratives. Even when filled with ideas, their reliance on a tried-and-true method of presenting them detracts from their originality. They have no place in their mental equipment for irony and puzzlement unless such against-the-text emotions are announced in advance, perhaps with an emoji on the slide. Unable to speak or write freely, their thinking lacks originality.
True, they will be socialized into what they can expect in the worlds of business and government upon graduation. But they will lose the beauties of indirection, the fact that the path may not always be straight or the answers readily at hand. The most interesting aspects of the world lie between the categories and off the grid. Because graduate students rely on PowerPoint, our undergraduates, like those who teach them, are being trained never to expect the unexpected.
Alan Wolfe is a professor emeritus of political science at Boston College. He is the author, most recently, of The Politics of Petulance: America in an Age of Immaturity (University of Chicago Press, 2018).